TORONTO – Phil Kessel surely would rather have avoided all of the attention that has come his way recently.
Notoriously shy and painfully guarded, the Toronto Maple Leafs forward was thrust into the spotlight a little over a week ago when he was the last player selected in the NHL’s all-star draft. Then came some cryptic comments to reporters over the weekend that turned into a major story for one news cycle—only dying down when Kessel addressed the situation on Monday morning.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the two events is that it brought forth a side of Kessel’s personality rarely seen publicly by reporters and fans.
In fact, he even cracked a joke after Monday’s 5-4 victory over Atlanta when asked if his meeting with GM Brian Burke earlier in the day was like visiting the principal’s office.
“No, it wasn’t that bad,” Kessel said with a laugh.
He stepped up even more after the all-star draft. While those close to the 23-year-old winger say he was embarrassed after being selected last, it never showed during a lengthy scrum with reporters immediately afterwards.
Instead, Kessel spoke of being glad to have earned $20,000 for charity because it gave him a chance to help the fight against cancer. He went on to talk about being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2006.
“My first year in the league I had cancer,” said Kessel. “I got through it pretty easily and I’m healthy now. Obviously, (it was) a tough time in my life but it made me stronger.”
Insights like that one have been rare since Kessel arrived in a much-discussed trade from Boston in September 2009.
Even though he’ll never be confused with chatty teammate Colby Armstrong, these are small signs Kessel is feeling a little more comfortable with his role off the ice—an important step for every member of the Maple Leafs.
Kessel addressed his teammates behind closed doors on Monday morning to make sure they knew he wasn’t looking for a trade after telling reporters it “might not be working out here.” He clarified that he was referring to his line with Tyler Bozak and Joey Crabb, which had been broken up by coach Ron Wilson at practice a day earlier.
He seems to have the respect of his teammates.
“We want to back him in whatever he does,” said forward Kris Versteeg. “He’s a star player for us and if he’s not happy about his play, I don’t know why he can’t say it.”